SMELL OF LEATHER
by Vivek Nath Mishra
After a long day, Subba walked down a narrow alley passing several sleeping, ruminating cows in the middle of the street, perturbing the sleep of stray dogs curled up in the betrayed corners. He reached his house in the dark and took out the key from his pocket. He kept wiping the beads of perspiration oozing on his forehead with the end of his shirt. His whole body had a tremor and it ran from his feet up to his hands and the keys fumbled in his hands as he took it out from his pocket. The key didn’t turn easily in the lock, perhaps, it needed oiling, some lubrication to unlock. He struggled with it for a while, drenched completely in sweat and looked like as if he had come out straight from a shower. Suddenly, he observed that he was using the wrong key. He fumbled and took out the right key. The lock opened after much difficulty. Sometimes we just don’t use the right key and keep forcing it the wrong way and eventually break the lock, Subba reflected. Subba unlatched the door and went in shutting the door behind him. An ear-splitting silence pervaded the room. It was pitch dark everywhere and he stepped forward gingerly, reaching out his hands to the wall for the switchboard. He turned on the light. The yellow sodium light lit all the corners of the room except the one place, his heart that remained dark, gloomy and hopeless.
He took his Kurta off and wiped his face, chest and armpits with it raising his hands above his head. His dark skinned torso shined in the dim sodium light. Subba threw the kurta in a corner, slithered out of his pyjamas and wrapped a lungi round his waist. He then dropped himself on the small bed in the corner of his room which was crammed with clothes, utensils and his son’s books. He had planned to sell all those books as it was all needless to collect now but it was more difficult to part with it than he had thought. Sight of those books was associated with the memory of his son reading in this very corner and he wanted this memory to stay there- untouched and safe.
His body smelled of blood, flesh and leather. It never disturbed him before but now it was the smell and sight which was quite impossible for him to stand, although, he had no way to escape. He knew only this work like his ancestors. It had been his daily routine since he was thirteen years old when he had chopped a live stock for the first time. And it became a routine after that as mechanical as brushing teeth in the morning. He had a flat porous rock in the shop and he would wet it with water, then he would rub the edge of his knife on the rock for several minutes. He would sharpen his knife daily. Then he would grab a chicken by its leg and pull it out from a dirty, dingy cage which smelled of urine and chicken poop. Chicken would keep cackling as he grabbed it out. Customers would stand there covering their noses and mouths with a handkerchief. The stench of the place remained unbearable but all these never affected Subba. He remained oblivious of all that.
He would put the chicken on the piece of rock and then would slit its throat without giving it a second thought. He would let the blood pour down in a bucket as the chicken fluttered helplessly in pain. He would wait for the last drop of blood to trickle down. Then he would pull the feathers off its skin and begin chopping its legs and wings one by one. It all remained mechanical for him. He would slice the meat into the smallest possible pieces and then would pack it all in a plastic bag and hand it over to the customers. But now his hands shivered as he tried grabbing a chicken; his whole body trembled like a child suffering from malaria. He couldn’t imagine himself doing that. How come it remained so mechanical for him for so many years! How come he never heard those cries before! How come he never noticed the terror in a chicken’s eyes! Now he witnessed the horror. Every time he killed a life, image of his own son bleeding to death began dancing in front of his eyes.
Subba picked up a bucket and headed to the backyard where there was a small dilapidated well and a huge Peepul tree stood still just next to it. A small Banyan shoot had taken roots on the surrounding walls of the well. It would become gigantic in a few years and might bring down the entire well. The small shoot could do that. He must eradicate it by its root in time, Subba thought.
There was not even a hint of breeze that day and humidity was unbearable. He was sweating all the time and his eyes were burning. Subba drew a bucket of water from the well and poured it over, mumbling something to himself. He went inside all drenched and dripping with water. He then changed to another lungi, combed his hair neatly in front of a mirror but still the smell of blood and meat remained adhered to his body odour. He felt like asking someone if he still smelled like blood, if it’s not just his imagination, but there was no one to answer.
Subba went in to his small dingy kitchen. He saw the dirty utensils piled up in a corner, flies buzzing around it. He sat on a low stool and began scrubbing a few pots and plates, rest he would do tomorrow morning, he thought. He felt too tired and was reluctant to cook but he also felt a fire of hunger burning inside him. Subba always felt more hungry when he was sad and depressed. He kept a pot full of rice on the boiler and began recalling his past few years.
Subba’s wife had died during the delivery of her first son. Subba’s sister had assisted him when he was completely broken and alone. In the most difficult phase of his life Subba counted on his sister. She was the first to come there on the news of her sister-in-law’s death but didn’t leave immediately as all the rites were over after thirteen days. She looked after the infant for several months but then for how long somebody is going to struggle for somebody else. How long his sister could stay with him? As the child began walking and was almost one and a half year old his sister went back to her husband. Her father-in-law was not very happy with her staying at Subba’s for long. He kept persisting his son to bring back his daughter-in-law soon. After Subba’s sister left, Subba would take Kooku, his son, to the shop with him but tied the child’s legs with a rope as the child ran after the sharp knife and would play with meat and blood all day. The child fell to sleep daily after crying his heart out. Raising this child was Subba’s biggest dream. He didn’t even know if he had any other desire. He was completely occupied. His son was his only dream, his only aspiration. The child grew anyhow and began going to school. It gave Subba more space and relaxation. The child would return home on a rickshaw from school and Subba would roll down the shutters in the afternoon to return home before Kooku reached there. He fed Kooku and took him to the shop with him for the rest of the day. Kooku would keep playing in the street with little children and Subba kept an eye over him while going through his daily course.
Soon, Kooku had a thin layer of moustache and Subba’s hair on the temple had begun greying when Kooku started assisting him at the shop. He was growing up well. Now he returned home from school on his own bicycle and helped himself to lunch. Now Subba didn’t have to shut the shop in the afternoon. Subba dreamt of his son working in an office far from this dirty meat shop. He would always stop Kooku from coming to the shop.
This much was Subba’s life, this much he aspired to live.
The world looked a satisfactory place then. Seeing his own child playing with other children in the street filled his heart. But everything said about heart and its tenderness is rubbish. Killing is as casual as breathing at the present times. Perhaps, the world has everything but a heart. There’s too much concrete for a heart to thrive, perhaps.
Subba’s train of thought broke as he heard the water bubbling. After the rice was cooked, Subba sliced an onion and a tomato and poured a few drops of mustard oil in it and mixed it all. He did only perfunctory cooking after his son’s death; he lost all his interest in cooking. He used to cook so many varieties of dishes for his son and it contented him to see his child relishing it all. The curry plant was still there in the pot outside in the veranda. Subba had planted it so that he could put some curry leaves in sambhar and chutney that Kooku devoured greedily. But the plant was drooping now, the leaves looked withered and the earth parched. He must water it today, Subba decided. Now his cooking was limited to filling up his vile stomach. He observed that not much of the mustard oil was left in the jar. He would buy a packet from the grocery shop tomorrow while returning from the shop on his way home. Subba scooped some water in his hands, sprinkled it on the floor and swept it with a broom. He then rolled out a mat with frayed corners on the floor. He had barely sat to eat when he heard a persistent knock on the door. It was Kalawati on the door. An old widow who lived with her only son and his wife. She lived next door and was very fond of Kooku. She had a corpulent built and walked limping. She came in struggling to catch her breath and sat on the floor with great effort.
“What a lovely child he was! This world has gone to dogs. There’s no sanity. I couldn’t come earlier. You see I’m always sick. This old age is a sin, Subba. Everyone seems insanely inclined to cultivating hatred, Subba. Just yesterday, Bhola was telling me that somebody has thrown some acid on the bull who roamed about here. What is its fault? Why are they making it a victim of their retaliation? They keep killing one another in the name of religion. I fed that Nandi everyday. Now he’s burned so badly that his bones are exposed.”
Subba sat on the stool and began eating with his fingers. His eyes were brimmed with tears. He remembered how Kalawati kept calling Kooku from the street as he went to the school. She would call him out, “Oh Rajkumar! Wouldn’t you take me with you to the school today?
“Wouldn’t you tell me what your teachers taught you today? She would say in a loving manner as Kooku returned from school.
It all reminded him more of his son and he hung his head low unable to look into the eyes of Kalawati.
“I’ll be leaving now. I’m on a fast today. I’m fasting every Tuesday, you know. If you need anything please let us know. We are your family just round the corner. Don’t stress yourself out. God is watching,” said Kalawati rising on her feet.
“Wouldn’t you take tea? I was just going to make for myself,” said Subba with quivering lips, still trying to stop his tears.
“O poor child, don’t bother please. You already looked drained.”
Subba latched the door as Kalawati left and went to his bed. He kept twisting and twirling in the bed but the cruel sleep kept eluding him till late past the midnight. No matter how much he tried to think of other things, the image of his son’s throat getting slashed swiftly in one go kept coming to him. He would throw his arms in the air with anxiety and sit up. His dreams were more cruel than reality.
There was a rumour in the city that Subba, after pulling down the shutters of his shop, went to a slaughter house and slaughtered beefs secretly to make some extra money. The hostility towards him was afire in the mob. A group of barbarians, brandishing flags, had besieged him many times at his shop but he begged and convinced them of his honesty that he couldn’t even dream of doing that. But the mob never trusted him fully.
“He’s a liar. How many times we have found the carcasses of the cows on the outskirts of the city. Who else could do that if not you? We warn you one last time or we’ll be compelled to take the law in our hands. Better you save your life,” a young man had hollered from the crowd that day.
“Pull his beard, that bastard will learn no other way,” other one screamed.
“Burn his skull cap,” a raised voice came from the crowd.
His son was there and his young blood boiled as he witnessed his father’s insult. His eyes were bloodshot. He couldn’t bear all the humiliations piled on his father.
“Yes, we killed a cow. What will you do? Don’t try to scare us. We are not some cowards,” he had said jumping on his feet.
Subba pounced on him, grabbed him by his arm and threw him away in the corner, “don’t say a word, Kooku. Have you gone mad? Just shut up, not a word anymore.”
“He’s a child. Please forgive him. He’s a fool, complete idiot,” Subba begged.
“Subba, keep your child under control. Better don’t try our patience or test our tolerance. He wouldn’t be young for long otherwise,” threatened someone from the mob.
They had a hot talk that evening. Kooku told Subba that he was ashamed of his cowardice. One has to shed all the cowardice to live peacefully in this world. Had he let him handle the matter all the threats would have turned into a farce, Kooku had shouted. Subba had thrown him out of the gate snarling.
This was now a daily affair. Subba had thought it out several times to switch his worl but what else he could do! What else did he know? Like his ancestors he knew only chopping meat and slaughtering chickens and goats. There had always been clashes between different religions but this propaganda had come into existence very recently. Nobody had even the faintest idea of how to handle it.
One evening when Subba returned home he found the doors of his room wide open. He thought his son might have gone to the field to play cricket and forgot to latch the door. He was very indignant. How could Kooku be so careless? But as he approached near he saw a river of blood coursing down the floor. He ran in shouting and trembling. It was his son bleeding profusely on the floor, his clothes soaked in blood. A stream of blood was gushing out. After seeing his son fluttering in pain he ran everywhere, stumbling, shivering with fear but lost his voice and had fainted down right there. Next day the newspaper was fully covered with the news of lynching. A police complaint was lodged and a few suspicious molesters were put behind the bars but Subba had lost his ability to speak. He knew that his son was not coming back. From that day the sight of blood made him shiver terribly, however, life goes on with its cruel intent. Subba knew no other work. He had a knife with which he could commit suicide but his hands trembled as he held the knife. Perhaps, he didn’t have enough strength to suicide. Perhaps, this was enough bloodshed.
In a moment, Subba’s life was turned upside down. There was no ray of hope through which he could lead his life. He spent his days like a dead man sitting at the shop, following the daily routine.
The only thing that gave Subba some air was the field where his son used to play football. Each day as he went past this field he felt like he saw his own son playing. He noticed some shadow. He would stand there still for several minutes just to see the game. The laughter of children running about the field gave him some ephemeral sympathy.
That day it was raining heavily when Subba was going round the field. Like any other day he saw children playing football. He could see his own son’s shadow in the field. But that day it was a different scene there. Children were laughing uncontrollably as a cow had sieged the ball and was not letting it go. A boy ran behind the cow and tried to shoo it away but the cow guarded the ball as if it was its calf. Subba didn’t find any humour in it. In fact, the whole scene reminded him of something else. He couldn’t comprehend it the other way. The ball was of leather, he observed. Did the smell of leather remind the cow of its calf, he reasoned. Suddenly a boy ran towards the ball and hit it in a direction of other boy and they began passing the ball to one another and the cow ran behind it in all the directions like a lunatic. The group broke out in a ruckus. Subba couldn’t see all that and he ran behind the boys shouting at them, at the top of his voice, to stop but his voice drowned in the uproar of laughter. Subba kept running hither and thither after the boys, pleading them to stop this humiliation. The whole incidence was choking him. He ran in all the directions similarly like the cow did. Perhaps, both were in the same whirl of emotions. The whole scene was filled with mad commotion. Suddenly, Subba’s slippers got stuck in the mud and he fell down on the ground as the laughter kept roaring. It was a deafening sound for him. He felt it piercing through his ears. Subba kept lying down there, enveloped in a layer of mud, breathing heavily. He had no strength even to rise on his feet. He felt drained. He kept staring at the dark clouds which rained down ruthlessly. He closed his eyes and dreaded that his voice would probably go unnoticed like the smell of leather.
About the Author:
Vivek Nath Mishra is a writer and photographer residing in Varanasi, India. His short stories have appeared on many platforms including The Hindu, Muse India, The Punch magazine and Queen mob’s teahouse. His photographs have appeared in several magazines including The Guardian and Sahapedia. His debut book is ‘Birdsongs of Love and Despair’.